As Jeremy Hunt pledges to block prosecution of British soldiers, Max Stein explores the role of the far right in a growing street campaign for immunity for soldiers who committed war crimes in the North of Ireland.
Content note: this article contains graphic references to war crimes and acts of violence.
British anti-fascists have been taking something of a break from large street mobilisations in the last few months. After a flurry of marches and counter-marches late last year involving the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), and the largely uncontested hard-right march over Brexit on 29 March, many leading far-right figures (including Islamophobic agitator Tommy Robinson) diverted their energies into the European election campaigns for several months. Since neither Robinson nor other fascist candidates (such as Ukip’s Carl Benjamin) won seats, it seems likely they will return to the streets in the next few months, trying to leverage Westminster’s dysfunction over Brexit to their own advantage.
That said, it would be mistaken to assume that all British fascists have been distracted with electoral politics in recent months. On the contrary, many activists and agitators have found themselves an extremely productive new cause – specifically, the large ongoing marches of British Army veterans and soldiers demanding immunity from prosecution for veterans guilty of war crimes in the North of Ireland. These marches have provided an alternative outlet for the energies of far-right elements like the DFLA after the successful rebuttal last year of their messaging on ‘grooming gangs’ by initiatives like the Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly.
The demonstrations have sprung up in the wake of the announcement in March that one former soldier – referred to as ‘Soldier F’ – will be charged with murder and attempted murder over the Bloody Sunday massacre that killed 14 unarmed civilians in Derry in 1972. After a series of smaller demonstrations went unopposed, organisers scaled up to large synchronised marches in April in cities including London, Manchester, Cardiff, Birmingham, Cardiff and Belfast. The attendees have included elderly veterans (above all retired Paratroopers) who took part in the Troubles campaigns, younger discharged former soldiers, and, it must be suspected, at least a smattering of current military personnel.
The organisers’ official social media accounts have carefully portrayed these marches as non-violent and even apolitical. The pinned post in the ‘Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans’ Facebook group asserts:
JFNIV is not affiliated to any political party and does not as a group support any political doctrine… JFNIV wishes to make it clear that it dissociates itself from any individual or group who misuse our marches for any other purpose than those stated above.
This is a communications strategy that should be easily recognisable to anti-fascists who monitored the early stages of the DFLA, which grew rapidly under the cover of its supposed ‘moderation’ and then quickly established itself as a serious far-right threat.
In reality, nobody who has thought much about the details of the war crimes under discussion – details obscured for many by decades of state cover-ups and media dishonesty – can be unaware of the highly political pedigree of the anti-prosecution marches. The call for blanket immunity is a right-wing defence of brutal personal violence and of the murderousness of the British state. Notably, the demonstrators are not only opposing the Soldier F prosecution, but also that of Dennis Hutchings, another former serviceman on trial for attempted murder. Hutchings’ victim, John Pat Cunningham, was an unarmed Irish civilian with learning difficulties, shot and killed as he ran away in terror from a British military patrol in County Tyrone in 1974. It seems fitting that these marches come side-by-side with the Trump Administration’s decision to pardon US military veterans imprisoned for carrying out horrific atrocities against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this context, it can hardly be surprising that fascist and far-right elements in Britain are intimately involved in organising the protests and have been effectively taking advantage of them. Aside from the DFLA, Britain First (BF), a violent rump organisation directed by self-styled ‘Commander’ Paul Golding, has been present and prominent at the marches from the beginning. Indeed, on a national level BF has been increasingly focusing its activity on Protestants in the North of Ireland for some time, setting up a headquarters on Shankill Road in unionist Belfast and carrying out leaflet drops and other public outreach in Protestant areas around the six counties. The convergence of hundreds or thousands of trained soldiers at events that are led or influenced by the far right may not be surprising, but it will be extremely troubling to anyone with an eye for the history of fascism: demobbed soldiers and veterans have historically been a key source of muscle for virtually all successful far-right movements around the world. Often, as in this case, this political bond is forged via ‘stab in the back’ narratives that impugn the government of the day as being too liberal or weak-willed to stand up for the interests of soldiers and veterans, or to carry out wars successfully.
We must also be aware that loyalism in the North of Ireland has long been a crucial ideological and practical prop to fascism in Britain. The six counties are the only place under British rule with a real tradition of the kind of paramilitary organisation (far more common in the United States) that successive generations of British fascists have attempted to institute more broadly. During the Troubles, the Ulster Defence Association and other loyalist paramilitaries could count on the support of the National Front, the British National Party, and (later on) neo-Nazi hooligan outfit Combat 18, all of whom took part in gun-running, fund-raising and other support activities for loyalist terror. In turn, British fascists benefitted hugely from the anti-Irish, anti-Republican climate curated by successive governments and by the media. Far-right thugs did a great deal of dirty work that British policy-makers were not unhappy to see done, including physical attacks on Republicans and the ‘Troops out!’ movement in Britain.
Today, too, the surge of British militarism and anti-Irish chauvinism which presents itself in the ‘Soldier F’ marches is in large part a product of state policy at Westminster and Whitehall. Due to repeated cover-ups and delaying tactics from the authorities, it took 47 years for one soldier to be charged over Bloody Sunday; the passage of time, and the selection of only one soldier to be charged, has made it easy for opponents to present the charges as a witchhunt against a solitary, sick and elderly man over “historic” accusations. Meanwhile, the government’s determination to shield more senior officers from blame while charging a former Private has added hugely to the anger and vitriol of the veterans, and played a key role in igniting the protest movement. Despite veterans’ accusations of state treachery, the reality is that British political leaders are resolutely opposed to any kind of meaningful justice, and ministers are already bringing forward legislation to retrospectively grant amnesty to any soldiers who are convicted. The Labour Party’s Shadow Defence Secretary, Nia Griffiths, has also endorsed the amnesty proposals.
The British media, too, is playing a predictably malign role in the situation. Right-wing tabloids are vocally supporting the mobilisations and echoing their talking points, while more liberal outlets are engaging in queasy equivocation around the issue (as with The Guardian’s absurd coining of the term ‘battle crimes’, to replace the more obvious and accurate term ‘war crimes’ in its coverage).
We cannot be inactive as hundreds or thousands of people, including trained killers with ready access to weapons, take over the streets over and over again. The confluence of army veterans, Ulster loyalists and British fascists could be deadly to the left if it is allowed to manifest itself as frequently and forcefully as it has done in the last three months. Devising the right political and organisational response requires careful and strategic thinking, and far greater total engagement across the left than there has been so far. As anti-fascists have done time and again with previous far-right movements, we must find ways of splintering apart the coalition which is giving these marches their direction and virulence. A good start would be to publicise as widely as possibly the organising involvement of far-right and loyalist elements, many of which have their own record of thuggish paramilitary violence in the North of Ireland.
One useful political demand is that which was formulated and released earlier this year at the annual Bloody Sunday Justice March, namely for the jailing of General Sir Mike Jackson, a commanding officer at Bloody Sunday who went on to become Chief of the General Staff, Britain’s most senior soldier. Highlighting this demand could provide a means of disarming one of the most potent arguments being made against the existing prosecutions: that lower-level soldiers are being scapegoated unfairly for actions that more senior officers were responsible for. Beyond this, it is not yet clear how much scope exists to neutralise the veterans’ antipathy, though it is certainly possible to highlight that the right and far right offer nothing meaningful to improve the lives of former soldiers and their families, who would benefit greatly from robust universal mental health and welfare provision and the reduction of unemployment.
All that said, we cannot opt for the apparent short-cut of presenting the veterans’ marches as otherwise benign occasions that are simply being ‘co-opted’ or ‘hijacked’ by far-right elements. Nor can we sidestep the need to actively demand the prosecution of all individuals and institutions guilty of murdering defenceless civilians. The ideological and organisational alignment between the far right and British military chauvinism is absolutely authentic. Moreover, support for Ireland is inseparable from coherent opposition to other British military imperialism – if Westminster succeeds in establishing amnesty for its forces’ crimes in Ireland, this will likely also apply to those committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any action taken to politically counteract the ‘Soldier F’ movement must honestly foreground the reality of British imperialism in Ireland, and must work to support the Irish diaspora in Britain in its own political demands for justice and redress.